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Review: Taking the Yellow Brick Road to Hell

Web posted on:
Wednesday, November 11, 1998 12:00:57 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Forget the seemingly endless string of vampire and slasher movies that we've been forced to endure lately, I'm here to argue that the scariest movie to hit our theaters in 1998 is "The Wizard of Oz." The film has been reissued for its fast-approaching 60th anniversary, in a hallucinogenic new print with colors that practically leap off the screen at you.

It scared the hell out of me when I used to watch it between my fingers when I was a kid, and (though it might say too much about my own emotional development) I still get the heebie-jeebies from a lot of it. I can feel a vague twinge in my stomach during particularly troubling moments, and there's more of them than you might remember.

Theatrical preview for "The Wizard of Oz"
Windows Media: 28k or 56k

Clip: "I'll get you my pretty"
Video clip: 1.7Mb QuickTime

Clip: "Off to see the Wizard"
Video clip: 1.7Mb QuickTime

It seems a little ridiculous to have to convey the entire plot. In fact, one of the main things that struck me while finally seeing it on a big screen is just how iconographic many of the movie's key images are. Over and over again you get really terrific songs and dance numbers, and then there's stuff like "Surrender Dorothy" and those ruby slippers that are so surprisingly impervious to removal. (I think a magic shoehorn would've been a great plot device.)

Check out the frightfest

So I guess the best way to deal with this is to explore the individual characters and moments that make me want to hide. Frankly, all of the characters are a little bit out-of-whack all of the time, except when they're so far gone that they're actually a flying monkey or a murderous tree.

  • Dorothy (Judy Garland) -- The pre-amphetamine Garland plays Dorothy, a Kansas farm girl who's evidently failed being 12 years old and has been forced to repeat the age well into her teens. It's a wonder she doesn't have five o'clock shadow. The famous line after the farmhouse drops down in Oz is that they're not in Kansas anymore, but you gotta hand it to Dorothy and Toto (not the band). They're pretty damn resilient when you consider the variety of colorful nightmares they're about to endure. Garland, it needs to be reiterated, sure could belt out a show-stopper when she wanted to. And just try not to dig those happenin' slippers.

  • The Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) -- His insides fall out on the street, and they pick them up and cram them back in as if nothing happened. If he gets too close to an open flame, he lights up like a Zippo. Bolger's the most ingenious dancer of the bunch, though, and I feel comfortable around people who are so happy to announce their own stupidity.

  • The Tin Man (Jack Haley) -- Oz never gave nothin' to the Tin Man that he didn't already have.

  • The Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) -- The Cowardly Lion doesn't scare me. I just don't like him. He seems inebriated, and you can easily see the string that makes his tail wag. Come on.

  • Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (Billie Burke) -- Could this chick be any more full of herself? "Yeah, all the witches on the west side are ugly. Not gorgeous like me." Factor in the magic wand and she's like a delusional homecoming queen with a cattle prod. Anybody who's attended high school knows that that's trouble.

  • The Munchkins (a bunch of very short people) -- As seen in "Under the Rainbow." Creepy city. Their bizarre fashion sense alone is enough to make me cower behind a couch cushion. I mean, their shoes have flowers growing out of the tips, for God's sake! Then you notice the hair -- half of them have that little swirl on top, like they're a Dairy Queen cone.

    They're also way too enthusiastic, if you ask me. The mean old witch was just killed, fair enough. But, hell, it happened right there in front of them and two minutes later they're gettin' down like it's Fat Tuesday. I refuse to even discuss the full-bodied horror of The Lollipop Guild.

  • The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) -- I mean it; I have trouble looking at her! This is what a witch is supposed to look like -- big, bent nose; Jay Leno chin; green skin. And she's not afraid to dress like a witch, either. Nowadays you get Nicole Kidman with hip-hugger jeans and a pierced bellybutton. It wouldn't occur to you to rub oil on Margaret Hamilton, and it shouldn't. She's a witch!

    There are several tremendously frightening witch moments, particularly when she overtakes Auntie Em's plaintive image while Dorothy has her face crammed right up against that crystal ball. Then she actually mocks the way Dorothy's crying! And mocks her good, too. I also like the shot where she's standing by the window, egging on squadrons and squadrons of flying monkeys. This particular image used to pop up in my nightmares when I was kid. Honest. I should sue the Mervyn LeRoy estate.

  • The flying monkeys (actual flying monkeys) -- Oh, man! These guys are the key to the whole thing. I like the kind of monkeys that used to go on Ed Sullivan and impersonate Maurice Chevalier. Not this! Their eyes are what do it. They seem like they're grasping everything just a little bit better than I am. And they hop around in what looks like a vaguely aroused manner when the witch starts screaming ... which, again, probably says more about me than it does anybody who worked on the movie. Besides, just imagine the ordeal of incoming monkey poop. I'd like to see the lost dance routine for that sequence.

  • The Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan) -- The guy's schizophrenic. When he gets all warm and fuzzy right near the end and starts handing out symbolic tchotchkes, are we just supposed to forget that he made the whole gang crawl in horror 30 minutes earlier and sent them on a deadly mission to retrieve the broom? He was lookin' to kill 'em. Plain and simple.

    Actually, you can get some fresh mileage out of the movie by comparing the plot to "Apocalypse Now" while you watch it. Our tormented hero (Dorothy) goes on a dangerous mission up-river (The Yellow Brick Road), all the while wondering what she'll do when she meets Col. Kurtz and his followers (The Wizard and all those crazy bastards at The Emerald City).

    There's nothing to worry about, though, because the Wizard turns out to be a big, fat guy who's full of himself and realizes that you can't play God forever. You could even dub "The Ride of the Valkyries" over the flying monkey attack. (No napalm, though. That might freak out the Scarecrow.)

    "The Wizard of Oz" is "The Wizard of Oz." There's not much more that I could tell you. This is not a director's cut with previously censored nude footage of Miss Gulch. It really is quite a trip to see this new print, though. Rated G. 101 minutes.

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